By Frank Jamerson
The New Testament speaks of the church in both the universal and the local senses. In the universal sense, there is one body and it is composed of all the saved of all the world (Eph. 1:22,23; Acts 2:47). In the local sense, a church is composed of Christians who agree to worship and work together, and in this sense there are many churches (Rom. 16:16).
The two unscriptural concepts that we want to study involve how we become members of the universal and the local church. The “language of Ashdod” that is too prominent today indicates that many brethren do not have a clear understanding of the distinctions between these two uses of the word “church.”
First, some talk about “joining the church” when they are speaking about their baptism into Christ. This indicates a lack of understanding about how we become a part of the body of Christ. We do not “join” the universal church. The Bible says, “And the Lord added to the church day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). The one who saves us, adds us! When does He add us? The context in Acts 2 shows that those who “repented and were baptized for the remission of their sins” were saved (Acts 2:38,41). Paul told the Corinthians, “For by one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). The penitent believer is baptized “into one body,” or “into Christ” (Gal. 3:27) in the sense that God forgives his sins and saves him because of his obedience to his commands. That does not make one a member of a local church, but of the universal church.
The second unscriptural concept that we want to notice is the idea that baptism automatically makes one a member of a local church. Just as we do not join the universal church, we are not baptized into a local church.
The Ethopian eunuch was baptized by Philip, and “went on his way rejoicing” because he was saved (Acts 8:38,39), but he was not a member of any local church at that time. Saul of Tarsus had been baptized into Christ, and accepted by brethren in Damascus, but when he went to Jerusalem and “assayed to join himself to the disciples” there, he was not automatically accepted (Acts 9:26). After Barnabas “took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus,” they agreed to accept him (Acts 9:27). The next verse says he “was with them” (v. 28). He did not just “join up,” he “joined in”! But there had to be the desire to “belong” on his part, and the willingness to “accept” on their part. When Apollos wanted to go from Ephesus to Achaia, brethren in Ephesus wrote a letter “to the disciples to receive him” (Acts 18:27). What the word of mouth accomplished for Saul, the written word accomplished for Apollos! Before there can be local church membership, there must be a desire to belong and an acceptance on the part of others.
How is this desire and agreement expressed? The Bible does not give the details about this, therefore we must use our judgment in applying these principles. There are three ways that I know that have been used. (1) When a person moves to an area, or is baptized into Christ, and begins worshiping with a congregation, his participation is accepted by the church and understood by him as indicating desire to belong and acceptance, and no word is spoken. (The danger of this method is that one party or the other may misunderstand the intentions of the other. Simply worshiping with a group does not necessarily indicate a desire to belong, nor a willingness to accept.) (2) A person goes forward and states his desire to the preacher, or expresses it to the elders and a public announcement is made of this person’s desire to “identify” or join this group. Unless there is some reason to question the person’s faithfulness, he is accepted by the congregation as a member. (3) When a person expresses a desire to be a part of the church, the elders meet with him, or her, and discuss their mutual responsibilities. After such discussion an announcement is made that this person is a part of the congregation. (Elders have a special responsibility toward members of the flock and such a meeting serves to let the prospective member know what we are doing, as well as what we do not practice, and find out what they have done in other places and are willing to do here. This is the approach that the elders here use.)
Other methods may be just as good in fulfilling the two requirements for local church membership, but we need to keep clearly in our minds that we are baptized “into Christ” (this is not “joining a local church”), and we join a local church (we were not baptized into it).
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 16, p. 495
August 20, 1987